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Object Association Determines How We Perceive Things

Author:NeuroGym Team

The Way We Perceive Something Depends On Our Emotions

When you were born, you were probably given a few presents (of course, your parents got the real gift of having you). Interestingly, whether you got a blanket, a stuffed animal, or a ball, you probably got something pink if you were female or blue if you were male. That’s because of the association people have with those colors. When you see that childhood object, you probably associate it with good memories, love, general caring, and happy emotions because of the memories you have with it. If you show it to someone else, it may appear as an old, worn-out object that doesn’t elicit any strong feelings. This is because the way we perceive an object varies depending on the personal experience we have with it.

Our brains make connections between objects and emotions. When we see an object, we already have ideas about it formed in our head. These ideas could be whether the object is useful to us or dangerous, but they can also be emotional reactions that tell us whether or not we like the object. Take the example of being at a doctor’s office. Some people are afraid of needles because they associate them with pain, even though their purpose in this context is beneficial. 

Object Association

It turns out what we know about an object can influence how we perceive it. Over time, though, we can change the way we think of an object by the experiences we have around it.

Object Semantics

It turns out we all have a sort of cognitive bias about any object we see. Our perspective changes depending on our knowledge of the semantics of the object. Semantics are essentially the meaning we give to something. You may hear of people arguing over the semantics of language, such as what the exact definition of a word is or how grammar influences the meaning of something. If I were to say “let’s eat, Grandad” it has an entirely different meaning than “let’s eat Grandad” because of the grammatical semantics.

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In the context of object semantics, this refers to the meaning we prescribe to an object. If there is a hammer on the table in front of you, you will get ideas about the object because of what you already know about it. You know it’s a tool, you know it’s useful to hit a nail with, you know it can be used to destroy something, and you know you shouldn’t let a child play with it. Where do we get these ideas from? It’s not like we are born knowing what every object in the world is! When an infant is learning to crawl, they will often pick things up and put them in their mouth, as that is the way they gather information. As we grow older and gain experience with different objects, we learn about them.

Continuing with the example of a young child, why do we have to watch them so closely? We can’t just leave them alone in the house by themselves. If you have a pot of boiling water on the stove, would you trust a 3-year-old kid to play near it? Of course not! They won’t be able to perceive that this pot of boiling water on a hot stove is dangerous because they haven’t had the experience of it.

Object Association

Now take the example of someone who isn’t used to using technology like a computer or a smartphone. If you handed them a laptop and told them to look up this blog and find an article, they would likely feel a bit nervous and confused, and wouldn’t know where to start! This is a completely different experience than the one you are having right now, as you were able to find your way to this blog, and you probably wouldn’t feel any great negative emotions if you were asked to do it again. This is because you know enough about the object, in this case a laptop or smartphone, to be able to view it in a positive light. 

The Science

Studies suggest that there are two different visual pathways that affect how we see an object. The results of a study undertaken by the Attention and Cognition Laboratory of George Washington University showed that the location in the brain where visual processing occurs is dependent on the object’s purpose. As well, what we know about an object will determine how well we can perceive it.

While these two visual pathways, the dorsal pathway and the ventral pathway, are separate, they interact with each other in human brains. It is believed the ventral pathway helps us identify an object, as in, it tells us what the object is. The dorsal pathway, however, will tell us how we can use the object.

The study from George Washington University involved showing participants different objects, some which were manipulable (e.g., a tool), and some which were non-manipulable (something that could not be used for anything). The results showed that when participants were shown the image of a tool, they were able to determine what it was quicker than a non-manipulable object, but did so with less detail. On the other hand, when they were shown a non-manipulable object such as a house plant, while they perceived it slowly they did so with more detail.

Interestingly, when the images of the objects were made harder to recognize and it was difficult to determine whether an object was a tool or not, there was no discernible difference in the speed or level of detail with which an object was identified.

The results of this study show us that our perspective changes when viewing an object based on what we know. This is because our knowledge of an object determines the part of the brain it is processed in, and how quickly visual processing occurs.

Perception Differs Depending On Experience

Interestingly, we all perceive objects differently. A few years ago on Twitter (the new primary source of our times), a picture of a dress went viral because different people were seeing it as being different colors. This was a fairly extreme quirky example of a phenomenon scientists believe to be true: that we actually don’t all see colors in the same way. It’s amazing to think that what we all agree to be the color red may not be, well, the same color red to everyone.

On top of this, we all experience things differently due to cognitive bias. This type of bias exists as our brain has to process an awful lot of information at once. To make this process easier, our brain forms meaning around things based on our past experiences. 

Object Association

Our brains are complex organs that control the whole body and sometimes they take shortcuts by making object associations. 

We all have biases of some kind. Think about it, if you have been attacked by a neighbor’s large dog on multiple occasions, you are probably going to associate that dog with danger.

Well, we do the same thing with inanimate objects. If there are two buttons in front of you, and one gives you money while the other gives you an electric shock, after experiencing these things you will press the one that gives you a reward rather than punishment. Without you realizing it, your subconscious mind is making positive and negative object associations.

The brain’s process of creating these associations is actually necessary for survival. As the study above shows, we are quick to recognize when something is a tool. This is necessary as we need to know how useful an object is. Our brain is constantly making decisions and interpretations based on our emotions and experiences in the past, so if something has been helpful before, we’ll have a positive memory of it. Your brain will even create flavors based on past experiences and knowledge we have gained.

Changing Our Minds

Thankfully for us, our brains are constantly growing. Our brains change throughout our lifetime in a process called neuroplasticity. This means as we get older we can continue to learn new things.

Object Association

The good news is, because our brains are always growing, we can always change our perspective on things, including object associations. As we have learned, how we see an object is determined by our experience with it and our emotions surrounding it. But as we can continue having new experiences, we can change how we feel about an object over time.

This is beneficial because although we may have negative emotions associated with an object, such as fear, we are able to conquer these feelings by creating positive associations! 

Maybe you have been trying to exercise more, but associate weights with feeling self-conscious at the gym. Well, if you redefine how you see these objects (i.e., as a helpful tool that can be a benefit to your health), you will be able to view them in a more positive light. This, in turn, can help reduce anxiety around those things with which we have negative object associations. Emotions are created by the brain, and we can train our brains to create new emotions.

In Summary

Our brains make connections with different objects, known as object associations, based on how we feel about them and the experiences we have had with them. This is largely a good thing, as it means our brains can be quick to identify when something is of use to us. As we continue to grow in our lives and have new experiences, we can develop new feelings about familiar objects. So don’t worry! Your brain is made to evolve and you can change your thoughts around different things!

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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